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VIU warns students in encampment they could face arrests, expulsions

“We hope this will not be necessary and that you will choose to discontinue overnight camping and remove all structures (tents) effective immediately,” the letter from campus security says

Vancouver Island University security officers hand-delivered a letter Thursday to a pro-Palestinian encampment on the Nanaimo campus, saying it has a right to arrest people and remove property — as well as to suspend, expel and or ban students from graduation activities.

“We hope this will not be necessary and that you will choose to discontinue overnight camping and remove all structures (tents) effective immediately,” said the letter signed by Mark Egan, manager of security facilities services at VIU.

The letter said overnight camping is creating “significant health and safety risks” — although it gave no details — and that VIU has not consented to the encampment.

The encampment at VIU remained standing on Friday, along with a similar one created from pallets and tents this week at the University of Victoria.

Reading from a statement in front of the VIU encampment, a masked protester said Friday that they reject the university’s characterization of the encampment as a violation of B.C.’s Trespassing Act or university policies.

The protester, who did not give their name, said VIU has not engaged in meaningful dialogue and is restricting access to bathroom facilities in an attempt to “manufacture a health and safety crisis.” “Our encampment is an act of protest against the genocide and the threat of invasion of Rafah, Palestine,” they said.

Egan was unavailable for comment Friday. VIU said in a statement that the university has not received any official communications from encampment participants.

“VIU is hopeful that through dialogue and discussion, there can be a mutually acceptable resolution reached with students participating in the encampment,” the statement said, adding the university would call in police to shut down the encampment if “serious concerns” about safety arose for participants, students, employees, or members of the public.

A spokesperson did not say under what circumstances a student might be suspended or expelled, but pointed to a website containing VIU’s student code of conduct.

The university told students and employees in an email that enhanced security measures would be in effect starting Thursday.

Entry to all VIU campus buildings now requires keycard access and a security guard was posted to the library on Friday, said employee and encampment supporter Chris Alemany, adding he’s disappointed by the university’s response. “I don’t know why the university has escalated it with this sort of messaging and with the locking down [of] the buildings.”

Alemany said those camping in the grassy space in front of the VIU library since Tuesday morning have been peaceful and respectful.

On Friday afternoon, the encampment at UVic, meanwhile, had swelled to about 30 tents. A portable solar panel was affixed to a shelter that also doubled as a medic check-in site.

Some painted slogans on the pallets that encircled the encampment. Almost everyone was masked.

When a person suspected of filming the encampment approached, shouts of “camera!” quickly spread. Music and chatter stopped until the man left.

The camp spokesperson, a 26-year-old UVic grad student of Palestinian descent who asked that his name be withheld for security reasons, said campus security has been conducting patrols every 20 to 30 minutes, and Saanich police does the same overnight until about 4 a.m.

Police officers have been surveilling the camp with infrared cameras on the library roof, he said.

At least one campus security vehicle was parked close to the encampment for most of Friday afternoon.

Hillel UVic, a Jewish student organization, asked its members in a statement on social media to refrain from engaging with the encampment and participating in counterprotests.

In a joint social media statement with five other Muslim student groups in Canada, the UVic Muslim Student Association said that it strongly condemns any actions that incite hatred. The statement also provided tips on what to do when stopped, detained, or arrested by police.

"It is within the right of every student to peacefully protest, so long as it is abiding by Canadian law."

A university spokesperson said UVic has reached out “to welcome a dialogue” with student representatives.

Students say they have no plans to move until the university divests from corporations that support Israel, cuts its academic ties with the country and condemns the “ongoing genocide of Palestinians.”

The university said divestment has “been an ongoing discussion,” but provided no further details.

Saanich and Oak Bay fire departments conducted a walkthrough of the campsite on Friday to check for fire-safety-related concerns, a UVic statement said, noting access to some campus buildings is being “closely managed,” including limiting entry to main entrances and locking secondary access doors.

The First People’s House, a short walk from the encampment, has reduced access to Indigenous students only.

A Paladin security guard was posted inside on Friday. A statement posted on social media on Thursday said the closure was intended to “protect the sacredness of our ceremonial spaces.”

On Friday, an open letter signed by 84 professors from more than two dozen departments at UVic was sent to president Kevin Hall calling on the university to deal with the encampment in a way that does not involve law enforcement, private security firms, or prolonged surveillance of students and student organizations.

“These are times to come together, to be human beings, to support and listen to one another,” the letter reads. “We call on UVic to find ways to emerge from the current situation in a way that puts our stated values into practice, stronger and better.”

The letter argues that pro-Palestinian encampments across North America have remained peaceful when law enforcement was not involved.

UVic did not respond to a request for comment on the letter on Friday.

Damien Contandriopoulos, a UVic nursing professor who helped co-ordinate the letter, said UVic administration has three options: try to ignore the encampment, call in police or sit down and have a real discussion with students.

Contandriopoulos said he hopes the administration chooses the latter course. “UVic is talking a lot about the important of decolonizing not only education but [also] our thinking and to be critical about institutions and power. And that’s exactly what these students are doing.

“There’s quite a few faculty members like myself who are kind of proud for the students. They are trying to change the world in a way that is better, more humane, more respectful of human life and human rights.”

In the U.S., universities have largely resorted to using law enforcement to break up encampments, with more than 2,300 arrests on 44 university campuses as of Friday.

The movement began April 17 at Columbia University, where student protesters called for an end to the Israel-Hamas war.

In Canada, pro-Palestinian encampments have been set up at the University of B.C. in Vancouver, McGill University in Montreal, the University of Ottawa and the University of Toronto.

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— With a file from Associated Press